The Rise of Superbugs – Are Antibiotics to Blame?

Antibiotics in animal feed

Friend or foe?

By Lucy Boyen

There have always been concerns that the antibiotics lacing the food that animals eat will affect humans. Lately the argument has reared its head again, amidst claims that antibiotic resistance is leading to new superbugs in humans and animals.

Livestock Antibiotics

Antibiotics were originally introduced to animal feed back in the 1950s. Animal consumption started to increase, thus the amount of livestock needed by farmers also increased. The expansion of herds living together meant a greater chance of infection and that infection had more chance of spreading.

Farmers thought if they included antibiotics in the feed the animals would already be immunised against common diseases, meaning they were less likely to contract anything. The idea was this would be more beneficial than treating individual animals as they show signs of infection. They were right.

Not only were animals less susceptible to illness, they grew larger, weaned faster and could be taken to market sooner. Eventually, around 40% of the antibiotics produced were for animal feed.

The prolonged ingestion meant the resistance to many strains of bacteria, including E-Coli and Salmonella. For example, ‘Lion Mark’ eggs in the UK are now considered to be virtually free of Salmonella, meaning everyone, including ‘vulnerable’ groups such as children and pregnant women, can eat them.

Of course, this is excellent news. It means farmers can produce meat for market to supply the demand. It means previously troublesome food is now safe to eat. But what we don’t know is how these antibiotics affect humans as they eat the meat.

Reports have been filed saying that the antibiotics are also making humans immune to certain diseases, meaning that a superbug strain of the disease would be immune to any antibiotics that would usually cure it.

It boils down to one fundamental question: Are we sure we know exactly what we are putting into our bodies and how they can affect us?

Antibiotic observations

Antibiotics vs Herbal RemediesMore than 70% of antibiotics that are medically important for humans are used in animals. This is likely to rise because of the economic growth around the world. When they are properly used, antibiotics are essential for treating infections but excessive use of drugs can cause a problem.

Where animals are kept in confined conditions a considerable amount of antibiotics are used to prevent the spread of infection and encourage growth. There are suggestions this growth promotion would decrease significantly should antibiotics no longer been given to animals, especially in low-income settings. Farmers could potentially see their business begin to struggle.

A recent report has reviewed 139 academic papers as part of their literature review. Only 5% of the papers argued that there is no link between animal antibiotic consumption and resistance in humans, whereas 72% found evidence of a link. The authors of the report feel this provides enough justification for a reduction in the global use of antibiotics in food production.

What are the risks?

There are a few main concerns surrounding the antibiotics passing from livestock to humans, drug resistant strains may be passed on through direct contact between humans and animals. Farmers are particularly susceptible to this. Resistant strains could also be passed to humans as they prepare and eat the meat. The resistant strains could also find their way into the water supply and wider environment as the livestock excretes them.

There are several concerns surrounding pollution from antimicrobial manufacture. A study has tested 1,500 fish near sewerage sites and has shown that male fish have begun to display female traits and female eggs have been found in their testes. It is thought that this is due to pharmaceutical drugs entering the water supply, primarily from humans who take the contraceptive pill. The authors concluded that their evidence shows there is a very strong link between the feminisation of fish and anti-androgens and oestrogens in the water. They also concluded that this evidence might add to the theory that hormone disruption in humans could be caused by similar chemicals. If oestrogens are not being effectively filtered from the water they could affect the fertility of men as they have with fish.

How do we combat this?

Antibiotics Vs Herbal Remedies

Vet rating farm animals

There have been three main points outlined for consideration: A global reduction of antibiotics used in animals and fish, especially those that are of particular importance for humans. The developments of standards to reduce the amount of antimicrobial waste being released into the environment; and improved ways to monitor these solutions.

There are also the options of herbal remedies to combat these problems. There are products on the market that have the ability to do the same thing as antibiotics with far less risk made entirely from herbs.

Herbal remedies have been used for as far back as civilisation goes. Before the advances of modern medicine and the creation of antibiotics, vaccines and other treatments, man has always found remedies in the plants and herbs that have been provided for them by the earth, not only for themselves but also for the animals that are in their care. Many modern medicines have a basis in old herbal remedies.

Each medicinal herb has its own unique properties that are categorised and chosen based on the type of illness or symptoms the animal is displaying.
This also determines whether one herb or a combination of several herbs is used. It is vital that herbs are identified correctly and harvested from non-polluted areas and should be grown, if possible, without the use of chemicals.

Herbal supplements not only provide the same treatments as antibiotics, they also provide an additional source of nutrients to the animal. No antibiotics would be transferred to humans via meat meaning we no longer become increasingly resistant to our vital medications.

Whether herbal remedies are the answer or not is yet to be seem, though one thing is certain, the superbug advancement is increasingly worrying and the amount of antibiotics in animal feed must be regulated in some way.